I mentioned this book briefly in this round-up of great reads from last month, but today’s column at First Things tells you why Ave Maria Press’ reissue of Sigrid Undset’s Stages on the Road is so very relevant, and why Undset can speak effectively to our age:
Raised by progressively-minded atheists, Undset realized while still a teenager that ideologies and their accompanying “isms” gave inadequate measures of the world and humanity, always narrowing truth precisely at the point where what is required is a broadness of understanding and the oxymoronic-sounding “bold nuance” of genuinely small-c catholic thinking. Sketching her autobiography for some editors in 1940, Undset wrote, “[World War I] and the years afterwards confirmed the doubts I always had about the ideas I was brought up on—(I felt) that liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is.”
Sigrid Undset’s life was a heavy one, and it seems if she could not have joy, she was determined to have light; unwilling to live her life in ideological self-containment, it is not surprising that Undset would eventually come to call the Catholic church “home,” or that she would credit the saints with delivering her to its doors. Undset’s fiction is populated with vividly drawn characters—people of action whose narratives are built very precisely upon “human nature as it really is,” including the propensity for doubt and regret. To discover genuine men and women living boldly—not excused from those same propensities yet mysteriously delivered of them in the promise of a life in and with Christ, must have been for Undset a moment of staggering, irresistible illumination.
By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those queer men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness—his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellow men, his everlasting fall from grace. Now it occurred to me that there might possibly be some truth in the original Christianity.
But if you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it. And in a way we do not want to find the Truth—we prefer to seek and keep our illusions. But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about ‘God’s friends,’ as the Saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit.
Undset eventually became a Third Order Dominican; her Catholicism is particularly clear-eyed stuff, as one might expect of someone who has come at it from a background of secular intellectualism and can speak to the value of faith, and the worth of the Church, from the deep personal experience of having not valued it at all. Undset is fascinating, and so are the men and women she profiles in her book:
Through six long-form essays, Sigrid Undset’s prose gallops so nimbly one forgets one is reading biography and surrenders as to the most compelling fiction—traveling through error and ego with Ramon Lull of Palma, sharing Angelia of Merici’s itchy sense of discontent and mission. We compare present challenges to the faith against the underground maneuverings of [the Jesuit priest, Robert] Southwell and [Margaret] Clitherow and find both instruction and perspective in their placidity, even as we revel at the terrible romance of their martyrdoms.
Read the whole thing. There is instruction and perspective — completely speaking to our age — in her included letters, too, most especially in her note to a parish priest. If you’re compiling your summer reading list, I think you’ll be glad to add Stages on the Road to it. It’s fun, it’s rousing, it’s thoughtful, and passionate, and best of all, every word is true.